Blaze Bernstein — Photo: Instagram
A Southern California man pleaded not guilty last week to charges that he murdered a former high school classmate who was openly gay and Jewish as part of a hate crime.
Samuel Woodward, 21, of Newport Beach, entered a plea of not guilty on Friday in Orange County Superior Court, reports the Los Angeles Times.
Judge Kimberly Menninger ordered Woodward held without bail, saying she believed he posed a danger to the community if released.
Woodward is accused of luring Blaze Bernstein, a 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania student on home from break, from his parents’ home in Orange County on Jan. 2, 2018, and stabbing him more than 20 times in the face and neck. He then allegedly disposed of Bernstein’s body in a shallow grave in a park in Lake Forest, Calif., where it was discovered a week later.
Prosecutors say they have DNA evidence linking Woodward to the crime. After Bernstein was reported missing by his parents on Jan. 3, police questioned Woodward and searched his house and car. They reportedly found blood stains matching Bernstein’s DNA in Woodward’s bedroom, under his watch, and on the visor of his car.
When first questioned by police, Woodward told them he had picked up Bernstein and the two had driven around before ending up at Borrego Park in Lake Forest. Woodward said Bernstein kissed him, and he pushed Bernstein away, but said he didn’t do anything violent towards his former classmate.
Prosecutors say they found images and messages on Woodward’s phone connecting him to Atomwaffen Division, a violent Neo-Nazi group, including images of a knife, a bloodied sleeping bag, and propaganda materials for the group, including swastikas and messages urging violence against gay people. There were also anti-Semitic, misogynistic, racist, and anti-government messages found on Woodward’s computer.
ProPublica previously reported that Woodward was a member of the Atomwaffen Division and traveled to Texas to meet with other members. A photo posted by a ProPublica reporter also shows Woodward making a Nazi salute.
If convicted of first-degree murder and the hate crime enhancements to that charge, Woodward could be sentenced to up to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He is next scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 25, 2019.